As the sentence was read out, Navalny shouted to his wife in the courtroom” “Do not be sad! Everything will be fine.” The court building was ringed with riot police who also sealed off Red Square in Moscow and central Palace Square in St. Petersburg lest Navalny supporters take to the streets to protest the decision.
Navalny returned to Russia from Berlin after recovering from a nerve agent poisoning administered in the Russian town of Tomsk, where he was carrying on an anti-corruption campaign targeting Putin and his cronies. The nerve agent Novichok has been used to kill other Putin critics outside Russia.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Navalny blamed Putin not only for his coming confinement but also the effort to assassinate him. “Someone really wants me not to take a single step across the territory of our country, returning as a free person,” he said. “From the moment I crossed the border, I was a prisoner. And we know who. We know why this happened. The reason for all this is the hatred and fear of one person who lives in a bunker, because I inflicted a mortal offense on him by the fact that I just survived after they tried to kill me on his orders.”
“Not only did I survive–not only that. I was not scared and did not hide. I participated in the investigation of my poisoning. We have proved and shown that it was Putin, using the FSB (note:ex-KGB), who carried out this assassination attempt.”
The main goal of the process, in his opinion, is an attempt to “intimidate a huge number of people,” he added. “This process, I really hope, will not be taken as a signal that they should be more afraid. You cannot plant millions and hundreds of thousands.”Navalny said.
On social media, his supporters called on demonstrators to protest at Manezhnaya Square outside the walls of the Kremlin.
Navalny’s sentenced followed two weekends of protests by thousands of supporters across Russia demanding his release.
Putin has long feared a mass uprising of the sort that this century has brought down regimes in Ukraine (2005 and 2014), Egypt (2011), and Georgia (2003). Including the recent, yet inconclusive, mass movement turmoil in next-door Belarus, all make for a potential nightmare of political contagion.
Putin may even harbor more painful memories: when he was still a KGB agent in East Germany, public protests brought down government after government across the Warsaw Pact, ending the Soviet Union’s hold on its satellites.
Putin has frequently warned Russians that civil uprisings bring only chaos and that are promoted by dark foreign powers trying to undermine Russia. “We should do everything necessary so that nothing similar ever happens in Russia,” he once said.
Last Sunday’s demonstrations filled snowy streets from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. In town after town, marchers chanted “Putin’s a thief” and “We are the power.” Hundreds of armored riot police monitored the protests and blocked streets to main parks and plazas where crowds were meant to gather.
Demonstrators were especially numerous in Moscow, where police blocked off access to the center of town around the Kremlin, and St. Petersburg, where large numbers marched toward Senate Square and iconic equestrian statue of Peter the Great. By sunset, police had detained more than 5,00 demonstrators, including around 1,500 in Moscow alone.
When Navalny arrived at Sheremyetovo Airport Jan. 17, police spromptly arrested him and a court arraigned him later for parole violations from a previous suspended sentence over an embezzlement allegation. Navalny stood accused of failing to report in person to parole officers promptly after the poisoning, although by law, parolees are allowed to be absent if they are getting over sickness. Two days before Navalny’s arrival in Russia, Berlin’s Charite Hospital, the institution that treated him, informed Moscow authorities that Navalny had been ill and convalescing all the time he was in Germany and had been unfit to return.
Before leaving Berlin, Navalny’s advisors warned he would be arrested when he set foot on Russian soil. Navalny insisted he needed to go back. He wanted to avoid the example of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarussian presidential candidate who fled her country during protests against the apparently fraudulent re-election of Alexander Lukashenko last August. Lukashenko has ruled the country for 25 years. He remains in power.
“Navalny sees himself as a politician,” said a close associate. “A politician cannot operate outside his country.”
Navalny focuses his anti-Putin campaign on Russia’s endemic corruption. Before returning to Moscow, he narrated a two-hour YouTube video about construction of a sumptuous palace on the Black Sea. I cost more than a billion dollars, Navalny estimates, and insists it belongs to Putin. The video has been viewed by 105 million people.
With Navalny jailed, where does the Navalny movement go? For any success—even the minimum goal of getting him out of jail–the protests must have staying power. Sustained pressure might persuade Russia’s powers-that-be that they would be better off without Putin in power and even make a move toward democracy to calm the streets. The country’s power players include the apparatus that surrounds Putin: the Federal Security Bureau (FSB), which is the successor to the KGB; the military chiefs of staff; the Kremlin’s presidential administration; and the constellation of major business and banks that control much of Russia’s economy.
But Putin has outlasted a variety of protest movements since taking power in the year 2000 and Russia’s powerful might fear that jettisoning Putin would weaken their position—after all, they owe their positions, and in many cases vast wealth, to Putin.
Putin, he will likely try to outlast the protestors, and especially try to avoid killing any. A crackdown with fatalities might rile up the indifferent among Russia’s population or even his supporters.
Outside pressure on Putin is a mixed bag. China is and will remain his ally. Last year, China’s Xi Jinping tamed a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong; he will not turn around and boost one in Russia.
For the West, it’s tricky. The US and Europe could impose economic sanctions. Navalny backers suggest that anything that harms the wider Russian economy would be counter-productive. Instead, they suggest the West opt for sanctions on very rich Putin associates, freeze their foreign assets and seize their property abroad.
For the moment, there are no clues as to what either the new Biden Administration or the European Union, which has vast energy needs filled by Russia, might do other than complain. As Lukashenko has survived internal disgust and Western opprobrium, so may Putin.